By Eric Peterson | Sep 11, 2022
Pleasant View, Utah
Contract machining and composites manufacturing
The former VP of R&D and engineering at ENVE Composites, Nielson has worked with composites for most of his career.
While at Trek in Wisconsin in the early 2000s, he saw a recurring phenomenon. "A couple times a month, we would have people show up at our office. They knew we made carbon-fiber bicycles, and they needed help making something out of carbon fiber," says Nielson.
It wasn't a good logistical fit for Trek and other product-focused manufacturers, he says. "You have a hard time keeping up with your own demand, let alone other people."
Nielson had it in his mind to start a contract manufacturer to fill the void, but it wasn't until late 2018 that "everything lined up" in the form of Origen Manufacturing. He teamed with co-founder Adam Elsmore, now the company's general manager, on the startup.
The company offers contract CNC machining of composites and metals, composites manufacturing, and stock carbon-fiber tubes. The last of the three stemmed from the acquisition of ENVE's tubing business in 2021. In terms of revenue, machining and composites manufacturing are "split pretty evenly," says Nielson.
The company doubled the size of its space with a move to a 4,000-square-foot facility in January 2022. It currently has two CNC machines, equipment for tubing carbon fiber, and molding capabilities.
On the composites side, Origen supplies manufacturers of bicycles, railroad products, medical and veterinary devices, and firearms. The diverse customer base's monthly order volumes typically range from 20 to 5,000 units.
"We do our own internal molds, so anytime a customer wants to manufacture a carbon-fiber product, we do all of our tooling in-house," says Nielson.
As a contract manufacturer, Origen's big differentiator stems from its founders' experience in the consumer realm. "I think one of the things that sets us apart is we come from a product background," says Nielson. "My partner and I both come from companies that are not only manufacturing companies, but they're product companies. We've been on the other side of the table."
He adds, "We're really catering to their needs, ensuring that we have great lines of communication, setting the right expectations, working with them on pricing, delivery, and availability."
One customer, a manufacturer of bicycle frames in Taiwan, came to Origen for help with process innovation. "They said, 'Help us find a way to have lighter-weight tooling, help us to find a way to cure outside of a press or an oven,' because they were tired of shuttling these big molds from an oven to a chill press or a press to a chill press," says Nielson.
Those types of jobs can prove critical in composites, he adds. "It's really difficult to separate the design and the material and the process. Those three things play together so closely. For you to design the right product, you really have to understand the materials that are being used and the processes. In the composites industry, there are a million different ways to make the same product, but each of those ways will result in a different product, whether it's different strength or a different thickness or length. So, being able to understand the material, the product, and the process really helps to drive innovation."
The formula is working: "We have customers all over the world. Whether they're these small custom frame-builders or large manufacturers, they come to us for different reasons."
It follows that Nielson left his day job at ENVE in February 2021 to focus on Origen full-time. Sales subsequently grew by 800 percent for the year, and he forecasts 200 to 300 percent growth in 2022.
Nielson sees potential to grow with customers and help them innovate and redesign products to incorporate composites. "We've really been able to focus on making our customers successful," he says. "If our customers are successful, then we'll be successful. That's the mindset of our company."
Challenges: "We've seen a lot of price increases over the last couple years," says Nielson, citing an uptick of 60 to 70 percent for many materials since mid-2021.
Hiring is another issue: "We've seen in our area unemployment is extremely low, so being able to find the right people is also a challenge."
Opportunities: "A lot of what we see growth in are companies that are in industries where there's been little or no innovation," says Nielson. "Coming in with composite materials can really turn an industry upside-down."
Origen's current customer base remains front and center. "Our internal customers are looking to grow their product lines, so they're coming to us with new products and additional opportunities,' he says. "Customers are wanting to grow and add more composite products to their product line."
Needs: Nielson cites an immediate need for two full-time hires, and leans on a pair of local technical colleges with composites programs. He's also looking to buy a third CNC machine, polishing equipment, and automation for tube production.